"Ouch!" I breathed one afternoon in my office. Shawn (not his name), our newly hired pastoral team leader (and therefore my new boss), had just commented on how forceful and scary "women from Trinidad" could be. That hurt. I'm from Trinidad. I wondered what about me had allowed him the space to offer such a remark. More, I wondered what it said about him.
On the surface, Shawn led and communicated in the gentlest, most welcoming of ways. His sermons delivered the good news in language that made no apologies for Jesus' lordship even as his tone and illustrative stories made Sunday morning newcomers feel safe. He picked his battles well; he consulted and collaborated with volunteer leaders and staff as issues arose; he worshipped the Lord with all his heart and soul. Yet his leadership smudged people in subtle ways…he was good at diminishing what was different from his way of doing things.
After leadership meetings between pastors, deacons, and elders, he'd caution me. I asked too many questions, was too direct, too bold, too energetic, too…much. Sure, I had to be conscious of how I shared my ideas and vision with colleagues and staff: did I invite…or announce? And yet his cautions, offered without any suggestions of how to change, began to hurt. I spent a year dissecting all I said and did at leadership meetings. Maybe my style was wrong. I couldn't trust myself: What if my words offended…yet again?
God taught me some important leadership lessons through my working with Shawn, lessons I couldn't appreciate at the time. I've learned to own my strengths and weaknesses, extend grace to the leaders around me, and embrace God as Creator.
"Own" My Strengths and Weaknesses
Shawn's passive aggressive behavior (truly—who makes a colleague responsible for the feelings and behavior of everyone else in a meeting?) forced me to pray through the challenge of the Apostle Paul's letters to Timothy. Paul exhorted Timothy to lead out of a place of intentional availability and vulnerability—to speak up, to not be hindered by his youth, to use and not neglect the gift he'd received through the laying on of hands.
Like you, I need the white mercy of God's Word to wash me clean every day. I trip, fall, blunder, and bludgeon my way through conversations and projects, often wondering why God's given me this particular task, this particular moment…to lead with his voice, his compassion, his patience. I'm not perfect. And yet, when I criticize any part of me—my "difficult" temperament; my way with words; my impatience; my approach to motherhood; my intensity; my inability to suffer gadabouts gladly; my love of music; my discernment, leadership, teaching, intercession, and administration gifts; my propensity to brood; my impetuousness—I suggest to God that he's made a mistake. Perhaps he dropped some stitches when weaving me deep in my mother's womb. When I criticize, I choose to be unavailable or vulnerable.
Dr. Marion Goertz is former president of the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. A mentor and friend, she offered up the following advice after listening to my latest "Shawn doesn't get me" story. "Renee, can you trust that the Holy Spirit will temper your words and your style?" she asked. "Do you believe that you can speak and not hurt anyone with your words?" Her words broke through my doubt. I felt a freedom I'd never felt before—a confidence to pray quietly, open my mouth, and speak into the brittle silences at staff meetings where agendas majored on minors and my boss seemed incapable of addressing the hard issues that needed to be tackled.
Today, my self-editing skills rust from disuse. And that's OK. What a release to trust that the Holy Spirit will give me words to say that are truth and love; words that are tempered and wise; words that won't destroy. And how marvelous to realize that I am unique and therefore necessary to the kingdom work that God and his church are about.
Extend Grace to the Leaders around Me
All well and good. But how quick am I to extend that very grace to Shawn, to my current boss, to the leaders with whom I work? Do I trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives, tempering them? What respect do I lavish on my colleagues' uniqueness when I'd far rather grumble about their deficiencies in leadership style, theology, administration, and people skills?
Shawn made me reconsider what it meant to be a pastor in a Baptist congregation: Could I trust the decision-making process for which Baptists are known—God's will would be discerned through a multiplicity of voices, not in the lone ranger's call to action? And I must say: Everything in me loves being the lone-ranger leader. Humble servant? Not so much.
I can only extend grace to the gifted leaders around me—volunteers, boss, board president and directors, communications colleagues—to the degree that I willingly lay down my rights to how and when my gifts should be affirmed. Guess what? Kingdom work needs more than me. Or you. It needs us. We need each other: your eyes, my hands, your feet, my backbone, your heart. We are one in the Spirit, leadership styles and all.
Embrace God as Creator
Finally, Shawn's behavior gave me the opportunity to trust and obey, to recommit to the vision God had given me to build up his house. I had to trust that the gifts and talents God had deposited in me where what my church community needed at that point in their history. I had to remember and obey (over and over it seemed) God's call for me to serve them, using those very gifts and talents.
God didn't make any mistakes when he knit me in my mother's womb. Then and now, he knows my strengths and my weaknesses. He knows the environments in which I thrive, and the ones in which I shrivel up like so much desiccated coconut. As I hear, again, the song he sings over me, I unfold. I breathe him in and I lay down the injured flesh of pride, bruised ego, and pressure-cooked frustration. "Yes, I belong here," I say quietly. "I can rest because you have gifted me with all I'll ever need" (Psalm 131).
Renee James is the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and editor of its magazine, The Link & Visitor. She is a former administrative pastor and a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman and Gifted for Leadership. She blogs about change at ReneeJames.org.